arts

Singing

Close truthLast night I finished recording backing vocals for a second album with Johnny Showcase.

It is a funny thing, this.

Funny to think that there might be people in the world who pick up this object or pull its digital instance out of the interwebs, and might see my name and think, “Oh she’s a professional singer.”

This strikes me as so impossibly strange.

How can I explain why?

Well…

It is funny to me because this thing has always been something of a joke on the audience. I’ve always done it in a kind of air quotes way, as if to say, “If I were a singer, and I knew how to sing, and I were someone who did this, this is what I’d do.” When I sing I play act at a character who is a singer who thinks they are amazing. I pretend as if I am someone who is fierce and believes fully in her own ability. I play someone who is almost bored with this endeavor and wears the virtuosity of performance with an almost disdainful air.

I can sing in this way because it is so pointedly not me. So not me that I delight in showing it, like a magic trick, to those who have seen the “real” me and watching them meld these two disparate pieces into a messy collage. They know me as an intellectual, a thinker, a director, a serious type. The sequins, the makeup, the eyelashes, the hair, these are costumes yes, but they are also talismans of transformation. They are portals that allow me to transcend the self that I tend to walk around in and become free. And their power feels tied to the audience. Without a power that summons them forth, they have no meaning and they are not able to be filled.

In the spaces before the transformation, in rehearsals and the studio, I am a hybrid half formation. I am not onstage, I am without my armor and I am so much more clearly myself. It is here that I can grow nervous and tense. It is here that I have to take responsibility head on. It is here that I am simply a singer trying to sing a song. And it is here that I feel like a fraud and a fake who has been getting away with this for a long time. It is here, every time that I hope that I will not expose myself too much as a counterfeit.

Something that I have learned: every other person in the room knows more about this than I do.

This is not false modesty. It is simple objective truth.

If you ask me what things I can claim some level of expertise at I will say that at one point in time I knew a lot about a particular bit of chemistry. I currently know a lot about a particular brand of theater making. And as with anything, the more one learns, the more one realizes that there is so much more to know. But in theater the confrontation of the unknown has become itself something familiar. I know that I can walk into a room and run a rehearsal. I know better how to take comfort in the early stages of a process. I don’t fear my capacity to produce a show.

On some deep level, somewhere along the way, I gave myself permission with theater. As a director, I can say that I really do believe that my “right” is just as right as another’s. And so my work flows from a place where I see that the formal structures I began with are scaffolding that eventually can fall away if I need to build in a new way.

Not so with singing.

I have pursued music with a kind of “Really? Ok… If you think I ought to” attitude from the beginning. I sang mostly because people said I had a nice voice. I sang because I was rewarded for doing so. But I don’t think I can say that I sang because I loved my voice. I didn’t sing because I needed to, I sang because it seemed like something I could use as a way to be special or impressive. All my singing was for other people’s ears.

And so my measure of musical success was also in the ears of others. My sound was “right” only in as much as it was valued externally.

My formal study of voice was plagued by constant uncertainty. I did not have a terribly developed ear, pitch matching and recall were middling at best. I had little aptitude for music theory and too little time or space to really devote to its study. What I did have was a decently developed instrument for my age and a keen facility to hide faults in my sound. So when I sang in groups, rather than really learning to read music, I often relied overly heavily on mimicry of those next to me in choir and eventually recordings of other singers for solo works. I did whatever I could to sneak by without being noticed as out of tune or worse missing the melody entirely.

What this did was develop a tendency in me to pull back when uncertain. To really sing out only when I could be totally sure of success. It meant that I never asked for help or gave myself permission to be a learner. Instead I would get quiet or drop out and then go home and furiously try to fix the problem alone where no one could see my mistakes. But there are times when this is not the most efficient way to solve problems, and it often means that the underlying ear training isn’t addressed. It meant that I could not be in my body and sound around others, it meant that I incrementally pulled my identity as a singer inside of myself. It meant that I only wanted to sing when I could be perfect and therefore meant that I never allowed myself space to learn.

What makes me a good director, I think, is not that I come into the room with all the best ideas ready and laid out. It is that I am able to watch and listen and respond and try things that fail and discuss and then try again and fail again and try some more. I think my directing skill is tied to an ability to risk and reap such risk’s rewards. I do not take negative response as a referendum on me but as useful information to help the thing I’m trying to do get closer to what I think it’s capable of.

So when I look back at that fledgling singer who was so afraid of disappointing it seems clear that her need to do it right got in the way of her ability to genuinely grow. When a flaw was exposed it was like a raw nerve. It was the part of me that I had worked so very hard to keep secret. And so it meant that such vulnerability was often debilitating to the point of paralysis. I cried in solo lessons, the one place that I truly couldn’t hide, almost as a matter of course. I learned bad habits of tensing my body, my jaw, my mind, in an effort to force out the right thing. My senses were focused only on the listener, gauging their interest and assessment rather than actually figuring out how I felt when I made these sounds. I did not trust myself, ever.

But I comforted myself by saying this was not something I “really” did. Singing was a hobby, a side project, one that I loved but knew that I didn’t work hard enough at. I wasn’t a “real” singer but I took solace that if I ever actually had the time I could have tried “for real.” If I’d actually buckled down and focused on it, I would have done better. I would have done it right.

I made my way through music in this fashion though middle and high school, through auditions and jazz choirs, through madrigal ensembles and state competitions, through musicals and recitals, through college scholarships and choral solos, through diction coaching and operatic arias, through Brahms and Mozart and Puccini and Stravinsky and Wagner and Bach.

The first three things that occur to me when I think about my four years studying voice in college are this:

  • Not being allowed into the chamber choir because my vibrato was too big
  • Being called a “wall of sound” in a vocal jury
  • Not having enough time to learn the Russian for the Rachmaninov set in my senior recital

So it seems the height of irony, if to no one else than myself, that I am known in my community as an expert in voice. That I have carved out a tiny niche of experience in a technique whose central tenet is exploring the edges of vocal sound, the pieces that we normally exclude and cover up and refine out. That I have the excuse that it’s supposed to sound ‘bad’ has been the out that I have given myself.

I remember when I first learned that Roy Hart’s early work was driven by a deep desire to be a classical musician, that he had a facility in this regard, that so much of his exploration was in part motivated by a wish to be validated by the classical community. I remember hearing this and thinking, “Ah. Yes. We are the same in this regard.” And it is such a funny thing that I spend so much time as a teacher trying to instill the very thing I still struggle to find for myself. A belief that one’s voice is worth hearing. A trust that the sounds that come naturally are not broken. That the failure is the most useful part of the journey because it begins a conversation about where we can grow.

I have this exercise I often do with students where I ask them to take everything we’ve done and forget it. I ask them to improvise song or speech or sound with no other goal than to simply voice something that pleases them. It is often the most difficult thing. It is this exercise that most often makes people cry or laugh or shake without knowing why. This is the most radical thing it seems – to express a sound for no one but ourselves.

So much of my experience with classical training is one of need and fear. A desire to do right, to be right, to sound right, to know the right notes and almost mechanically find myself able to become a vehicle for them. What is the sense to make of all that formal training? Is it just necessity that we fight and fight and fight with ourselves to internalize these rules only to find ourselves desperately needing to throw them away later?

I think of the experience of what it feels like to have to drill as scale again and again and again. To run the same sequence in a recitatif ad nauseum in a lesson until it becomes unconscious, until it is in me and of my body. Until it is simply a pattern than has become carved deep into my being. I can see that in the best moments, in the ones when I could just give myself permission to be deeply “wrong,” I could finally open enough to try until I finally got to something new and that felt like an opening. That felt like deepening. And it was these kind of times when I felt like maybe I wasn’t such a fake, that I was just a learner trying to master something currently bigger than myself.

The sections of those long ago songs that came easy, the bits that I could get on the first or second try, these musical sequences have faded in the ten years since I stopped singing classically. But those asshole passages with tiny twists and bits that ensnared me so deeply and so thoroughly, the ones that made me cry, these are the same ones that I can remember perfectly now. These are the ones I will know in my bones until I am nothing but.

Last night I found myself at the end of the evening having to make up a harmony with no prep time, on the spot, with people much more skilled at this than I. It was clear that it was harder for me to find my spot that the others. And normally this is a very hard place for me. I often lock up and resign myself to taking the work home and trying to drill it in alone with no one to hear. In the first album’s recording session I stayed in a state of abject terror over whether I was the problematic sound. But over these past few days, I have told myself to just try, earnestly without judgment, as best as I am able.

With the laser specificity that is a recording session I have come to see that I am not the only one who sometimes strays out of tune or misses a note when really trying to get it perfect. I have realized that in the years at this I am actually getting better. I am not perfect, but I am also not the total fraud I fear.

I am exactly where I am, with some degree of facility and a lifetime of learning more in front of me.

And this is sort of what I wanted to explain, I think. That we must give ourselves the gift of failure. That we must come to believe we need it or the need to deny it will take us over completely.

– A

Everything old is new again

everything_old_is_new_again_by_ekzotik-d4cdlz3The process of change is so slow we barely see it.

This is how it is possible that I am sitting with a dear friend and fellow creator on Friday and realize in the midst of our conversation that I am… happy. That I am open and new. That in front of me lays fields of possibility. That the anger and confusion and pain that I felt not so long ago is actually melted and revealed something quite unexpected and different.

Do you ever wish you could sit down and check in with a version of yourself from the past?

I can.

“I need to know it’s worth doing this art, in this way, at this time,” says Adrienne in December of 2012.

The truth of the matter is that the works I’ve made are things I’m proud of.

The truth of the matter is that I increasingly lost an internal sense of why I needed to make them.

The truth of the matter is that I don’t really care what anyone else thinks “theater” is or if I’m “good” at it.

The truth of the matter is that my “theater” is simply a means to a deeper question about connection and understanding and thoughtfulness and desire and finding a way to make sense of what I’m doing here.

The truth is that for a while I got a fair bit better at making “theater” as other people define it and a bit worse and making sure it was still answering the deeper questions I wanted to be asking.

The last year and a half has been a concerted and nearly constant effort to realize this and get myself in a place where that was no longer the case.

It has been hard.

I have felt like a failure often.

Most of the time progress was slow to the point of imperceptibility.

But today, for whatever reason, it has hit me: the work I’m in the midst of making now is worth doing. This work. In this way. At this time. And for the first time in a long time, I feel really really free.

Today it seems I’ve gotten far enough from there to really see the distance.

Random snapshots from recent life:

Friday: I am randomly invited to a conference on game design in Boston the next day. I drive 6 hours the same day to get there. The next day I have conversations about ethics and narrative structure and audience agency. I feel like I am talking about my theater.

Two weeks ago: I hand in the first draft of a study plan that predicts the next two and a half years of reading and artistic practice which will make up my self-directed graduate degree in interdisciplinary arts. I know almost nothing about anything on my reading list. I am ecstatic. I wish there was more time I could add to the universe because the list is already too large for the time I have to tackle it.

One month ago: I decide that I need to do something creative that requires my hands. I decide I need to learn to play the piano. I start downloading beginner’s sheet music. I spend 30, 40, sometimes 60 minutes a day with Für Elise and simple chord progressions. I love being a beginner.

This week: I chat back and forth with a painter and novelist about the possibilities of a week’s worth of collaboration and experimentation for Cross Pollination. There is a little trepidation about what exactly we will do. I do not know. I do not care that I do not know. I do not, as I normally would, make a bunch of plans of things I do know how to do so that the trepidation subsides. I decide to wait until I genuinely think of something I want to do.

Today: I watch a video by game designer Brenda Romero about her “The Mechanic is the Message” series. I hear her talk about her love/hate relationship with her ascension into the ranks of “professional” creator. I hear her speak about a nascent need to remove herself from the industry of her craft, to make things by hand. I hear her explain how she took time, extensive time, away from digital design to play board games. I hear how she begins to make games about things she never imagined possible, games explore deep and vast tragedies. Games that challenge the player to examine their own agency and choice in participating. Her elements are handmade, deeply personal, unreproduce-able. This is the point, it seems to me. It also seems to me that in the end, the rewards her games reap are equally unique, meaningful and rich. They fill the creator’s soul rather than the professional’s resume.

Thursday: I have two conversations in the same day about ideas for new projects. One is a piece for only two people at a time and the other for a potential 2,000. One takes place almost entirely inside the mind of the viewer, the other could cover most of the city of Philadelphia. They feel like the same kind of inquiry. I feel like I can start working on both of them tomorrow, by myself, if I wanted to. Not researching, not imaging, literally, making stuff that will go in them. I like not having to wait to get started.

Six months ago: I decide I want to write. I decide I want to write fiction. I decide I want to write a novel. Every few weeks I pull up the document and write furiously for a few days. At last count I am up to 170 pages and 39,949 words. I also decide I can show it to people someday or not. Either way it won’t matter. I just need to write it.

And so it is that I find myself at this moment feeling the most vibrant and true expression of my theater-related creative impulses into forms that look almost nothing like what “Theater” would typically be defined as.

And so it is that I find myself confronting new projects that are amazing and daunting and unknown in almost every way.

And so it is that I have met more people and had more new conversations about creativity in the last few weeks than in the last few years.

And so it is that I have stopped feeling so crushed and frustrated.

And so it is that I don’t worry about whether what I’m doing is right.

And so it is that I know the only thing that matters is if it’s what I feel myself needing to be doing.

And so it is that finally finally finally… it seems I’ve found what that is.

And so it is that I stand in the shower today thinking about my conversation on Friday and realize that it feels like something I have to share and so I write this, hastily, before I run out the door because it is also clear that it has to be done today, right now, before I lose understanding of it in just this particular shower-inspired way.

And so it is I share it with you.

And run.

To be late.

To the next amazing thing.

– A

Writers of Stage and Page: Erlina Ortiz and Kirsten Kaschock

erlina and kirsten

Two more “coffee date” creators! Today we have:

Erlina Ortiz (directing, playwrighting)

Kirsten Kaschock (writing, choreography)

This particular brand of cross-pollination feels unique.

Unlike almost all of the other pairings we did in this round, these two are creators (at least partially) in the same medium. And yet in most every other way – cultural influence, stage of career, form in which your words are expressed – their works differ. Couple this with me and my own burgeoning sense of language and you have three pretty different wordsmiths. The panel and I really liked the idea of a conversation between writers at different ages, of different races and cultural backgrounds, using different kinds of means to communicate language. And yet, despite those differences we do have a common a background in some kind of live performance form either theater (for Erlina and I) and dance (for Kirsten).

Erlina, third from the left

Erlina, third from the left

What struck us most in Erlina’s application was the review by Citypaper for her piece Minorityland. That the reviewer admits to all her preconceived notions about what Erlina’s work would be and how she would assess it, that she admits to not wanting to participate in the issue that the work is addressing and that she then flat out says that she was totally and completely wrong on every count… What a powerful testament to a young creator’s ability to transcend the powerful stereotypes that others will put on her as a young woman of color. What great evidence that her writing is something we should be paying attention to.

For Kirsten it was clear that she’s hungry to take your writing in new places. And how exciting to find a writer in this place after a Sleight-356x535successful career with a large body of output, how amazing to be on a precipice of something wholly new. I loved the bit from her novel Sleight, loved the slow burning build of tension that the back and forth between the interviewer and subject creates. It’s a lovely and quiet power. One that made me guess at answers in advance, trying to anticipate the person I felt myself in conversation with.

I think… well, I think I sleight because I always have. My mother sent my sister Lark and me I guess for poise and I was good. And when you are good and a girl at something you stay with it—maybe for all the goodgirl words that come. Goodgirl words like do more, keep on, further—instead of the other goodgirl words—the if-you-are-you-will words—be nice and softer and you don’t like fire do you? – From Sleight

It was this sentence from Kirsten’s application:

“So far, what I have not been able to achieve as a writer is a creative (rather than scholarly or documentarian) relationship with the performing arts. Because I have a background in dance, I often wonder if I have shied away from more text-based theatre because I felt more qualified and educated in movement techniques.”

that made me think of this pairing. Because it would be so exciting for Kirsten to offer Erlina the gift of decades of experience and vice versa for Erlina to offer the memory of the gusto and daring of first setting her words free on a stage. It would an erlinainteresting mash up to see how these two writers might write together. How their differing experiences and approaches could inform each other. How their experience with their respective strengths might shift each other’s sensibilities.

Erlina’s application describes her creation process in a sample convo with her collaborator:

“Wait! Omg.. what if she was her daughter!?”

“Oooo that’s good.. omg I can’t wait to write that.”

A typical conversation for us.

Needless to say, we are very open to change.

"thread" right over the heart

“thread” right over the heart

In person, it was clear Erlina is excited, articulate and energized. She’s a young director/creator/writer I met last year and one who I think Philly ought to be watching. We should all be psyched about where her work will go. And Kirsten is a language island of sorts – the writer in a dancing family. Her seamless transition back and forth and back and forth between language and movement (having worked and studied as both a writer and choreographer) are like a ballet in themselves, one that weaves and binds these two disparate elements together. Can it come as a surprise that she has the word “thread” quite literally written on her chest?

Pick three adjectives that describe what you make:

Erlina: Entertaining, Scary, Real

Kirsten: Visceral. Unnatural. Haunting.

What was exciting about this conversation was the fact that we span such a range of experience levels. Erlina is literally just embracing that role of playwright with her second piece for the Fringe this year. Similarly, she talked about how it was leaving home that really inspired her to embrace her Dominican heritage and begin to use it as the fodder for her artistic expression. I am a director who came to writing semi-unwillingly, creating scenes for language initially out of necessity and then discovering non-fiction writing as a means to express in the in the long in-betweens between shows. And Kirsten is both a poet and novelist – one who talked about needing the distance that fiction provides, that getting too close to reality weights and drowns the work. She often employs the metaphors of science fiction to create an othered world that can allow us to examine our own.

From Erlina’s play Minorityland:

Deb: (sighing) You know… I don’t think bees were every meant to sting humans.

Otis …what?

Deb: I think one day some stupid bee went astray and stung some human and now, that’s all anyone thinks bees are good for. And everyone started running away from all the other bees and the bees said well fuck it. I may as well sting humans too…You make your own enemies by assuming the worst out of everyone.

We also discussed the intersections of language and performance, about authenticity and the difference between movement and story. I think that there could be lots to do in this group, plenty of interesting experiments to try. There was also a lot of talk about convention – for example the choice made from necessity for Erlina’s company to cross gender cast or cast young actors in roles that are older – and how it changes the performance, whether the “real” thing is actually better.

Thanks to you both for meeting with me!

A

An interplay between effort and ease: Lauren Rile Smith and Francois Zayas

Lauren and Francois

The latest “blind date” from Cross Pollination! Today we meet:

Lauren Rile Smith (trapeze, circus arts)

Francois Zayas (music, composition, percussion)

Muscularity mixed with grace. This was a theme that emerged in both their applications.

lauren door 1Whether expressed through a virtuosic solo on maracas or the twisting expertness of a trapeze act, this pairing grew partly from a sense that both acrobatics and jazz are art forms that require intense training, years of study in almost formulaic muscle memory, in order to achieve a sense of freedom and flight in the moment of performance. They are also both mediums that depend on deep trust – of the instruments/objects used to perform, of the people who join us in that performance – in order not to falter and fall.

Francois: “Through all the years of my career I have experienced the benefit of collaboration with other artists many times. This is something that I seek out in francois maracasmy everyday life and constitutes an essential part of my creative process.”

Lauren has mentioned to me in the past that she is often seen as unique in her work for being a woman who acts as an acrobatic “base” or support (a position usually occupied by male performers). It strikes me that perhaps (though I will admit to having had only the first tastes of the banquet that is jazz music) it is also unique to have a percussionist as the leader of a jazz ensemble. In this way both of these creators strike me as participating in tradition while simultaneously innovating within it. It also seems as if your part in your artworks creates a kind of foundation, a ground floor on which everything else can be built.lauren trapeze

Lauren: “I see a powerfully interdisciplinary potential in circus, as an art form that straddles genre, from dance theater to variety-hall burlesque.”

And there’s a parallel too in the way that their works re also a vehicle to express personal identity: be it in the way we are allowed to see a female body moving through the air or in the awareness of how one’s Caribbean roots can be expressed through pulsating waves of rhythm.

Pick three adjectives that describe the stuff you make:

Lauren: feminist, muscular, inventive

Francois: Unique, thoughtful, Cuban

francois drums close

Credit: Alan Jackman

This was a conversation that wove its way through all these things and more: Lauren talking about the way that the aesthetics of ballet are sometimes necessary in trapeze but sometimes not, Francois talking about how standard jazz improvisation has become a default that people expect but might not really strengthen the composition of the music.

Thanks to both of you!

– A

Audible Pictures, Visual Music: Nick Cassway and Elizabeth Huston

Nick and Liz

Cross Pollination Coffee Dates continue with a profile of two more amazing artists. Today we meet:

Nick Cassway (drawing, portraits)

Elizabeth Huston (harp, contemporary music)

One of the things I really liked about Elizabeth’s application was her questioning of how visual media can (perhaps may need to) enrich the experience of her music. I loved this statement in particular:

“My experience as merely a musical performer and producer isn’t going to cut it anymore.”

sky harp 2What better attitude towards tackling collaboration between genres than this? And it’s clear in her samples that this is already an avenue of exploration. She a musician thinking about the future of her music genre and she’s created a body of work that explores how visual performance can help a modern audience interface with a classic art form. From what she shared, it looks like most of that exploration has thus far been with other live performance genres (there are some great dance clips in particular in her sample) and it made me wonder what would happen if the visual media that her music confronted wasn’t also in motion (or at least not in an obvious way)?

Similarly, I liked the way Nick is testing the way his audience’s interface with his work. He creates his images fast – drawing multiple illustrated versions of real life photos in rapid succession and then combining them into the final product. His pieces in some cases are also not simply static two-dimensional objects, but works that change with the passage of time (as in the installation at Eastern State Penitentiary) or with perspective (as in his “Into the Woods” series). And in this way he strikes me as a visual artist perfectly primed to explore a collaborator whose output is performance-based.

He included this in his application:

“I am also interested in how one medium translates into another – what is lost and what is gained, what language about process, creation and critique are shared and what is untranslatable between mediums.”

into the woodsAnd this is almost to the letter the initial spark that caused me to create the Cross Pollination program in the first place. I had just finished a conversation with a peer artist, a modern dancer, and thought:

“Wow. Their starting point, their sense of narrative, the frames with which they view their work are SO different, even though theater and dance are so similar in most ways. What would it mean if I had to make performance for an audience in the way a visual artist does? What about if that person had to think of their ‘static’ object as moving through time and space?”

In our meeting it was quickly clear that all three of us are solid in our current artistic methodologies but really interested in the possibility for what can happen when we aren’t just stuck in our rehearsal room, studio, or practice hall. Both had previous experiences that they shared working with a person outside of our discipline – for example Nick with a performer in creating that Into the Woods series, Liz in an avid search to combine visual components like dance into her performances – and discovered a totally new kind of thing based on the collaboration.

Pick three adjectives that describe the stuff you make:

Liz: Alive, Multi-Discipline, Engaging

Nick: Graphic, Uncomplicated, Funny

CasswayJustinLaserThis trio also seemed interested in figuring out how to make our work interesting and useful to current audiences by hooking people in with something novel – glow in the dark paint in Nick’s illustrations, a shadow play with Liz’s music, involving the audience more directly as a character in mine. That we all are intrigued by the way that we need to make sure our work isn’t just for our peers but for a lot of different people feels really ripe. We also talked about trying to really stretch ourselves past the limitations of our current ideas of collaboration. I came away really interested in getting performance (theater, music) to unseat the idea of theater as a time-based performance and think more like a visual artist – with a sense a presentation that can be interacted with in lots of ways.liz harp long

At one point we were talking about the satisfaction with trying a totally new form – me taking up the piano, Liz talking about the feeling of playing recorder for the first time and Nick saying he’s always wanted to try his hand at the banjo. Nick joked that our residency time could be employed making a “band” out of these and I said, “You joke, but what if?”

And though we all laughed at the thought, I bet if I proposed it, I bet they’d be willing to try it out.

Which I think is a really great sign.

– A

Cross Pollination begins…

Hey all,

So it’s been a bit.

And though we haven’t had much time together in this space, I feel like I’ve gotten closer to the Philly arts community in the past few days than I have in the past year. Monday marked the very first of the Cross Pollination “coffee dates” – meetings in which the folks selected and grouped together after the initial application round meet up and see what kinds of chemistry might result. I’ll be doing A LOT of these in the next couple weeks. If they keep going like they have been, the CP team will be in big trouble because we’ve found some really kick ass creators out there in the Philly landscape and choosing half of them to move on is going to be a daunting task.

abeepollen1Tomorrow I’ll begin profiling the groups that I’ve met with. I’ll be lucky enough to be an equal participant with all the groups that are brought together as part of this – the third leg of all the trios that move on. And because I don’t want to be the only one to get to see the wealth of awesomeness, one of my big goals for the Cross Pollination project is to share the creative research that happens at every step of the journey. So expect a lot of thoughts about how other genres can teach us about our own work this summer and in the months beyond.

I thought that I’d start at the beginning, with myself, the only common thread through all the projects.

We received 90+ submissions for this project. Only 30 artists/ensembles, 15 pairs, were selected to meet in person with me to see what kind of a trio we might make. Each one of those folks wrote something in their application that sparked myself and the reader panel to know more. And since they did all that work, before we met I too created an “application” that I sent to them. It explained my work and impulses to pollinate using the same questions I’d asked them.

Cross Pollination Application

Name: Adrienne Mackey

Artistic area(s) of practice/expertise: Theater mostly, with a little writing and voice in the mix as well

• A bit of writing

Using 400 – 800 words on this form or another attached sheet write about why you’re interested in Cross Pollination: What makes you want to participate in this project? Do you need to shake up the way you make stuff? What makes you want to work with artists from other disciplines? Is your current process open to change?

I wrote the grant that is funding Cross Pollination on a whim.

I’d received funds from the Knight Foundation previously for another project called “Outside the (Black) Box” in which I staged theatrical works in unusual spaces including a show at Eastern State Penitentiary and another that toured to science lecture halls all over the city. And because this foundation had never done it before, I figured there was no way they fund me a second time.

So I used it as an opportunity to imagine a kind of ideal artistic experience: one that allowed me to meet a huge number of new and diverse creators, one where I got to spend substantive time, was well paid and had access to any resources I might need, and most importantly had the chance to do some research and development without the pressure of any finished product. As a former lab chemist, I approach my creative “experimentation” with a scientist’s sensibility: I ask questions I do not yet know the answer to and then carry out research that delves into the inner workings of my subject of study. And it’s funny that it was while working in a lab that I discovered directing live performance was going to the thing I would commit my life to doing.

I say live performance because when most people think of the word “play” they tend to imagine red curtains and “please unwrap your candy” speeches and sad family members sitting on beige couches talking about their relationship problems. That or Elizabethan doublets and “To be or not to be.” And while I don’t mean to say there isn’t value in those kinds of experiences, the kinds of work I’ve been making for the past decade tends to look and operate differently. I usually ask a bit more of my audiences than sitting back for an hour or two and watching. I want them to sing, I want them to move, and sometimes even choose the way they navigate the experience they take part in.

And yet, while I love creating and directing these kinds of projects, I’ve also always been a bit of an artistic omnivore. I studied classical opera as well as some pretty “out there” experimental approaches to voice. I’ve acted professionally and currently sing back up vocals in a funk band. (I’m the one in the middle with the big hair). In the last few years started writing the words my actors speak and also composed nearly 50,000 words on the state of the arts in Philadelphia and beyond. My directing works have always been an outlet for my interest in other topics – quantum physics, American labor history, science fiction, racial tensions between communities in Philadelphia – and the form these works take are often inspired by other mediums I encounter in researching them.

So in a way, this project is my chance to formalize that process. It’s my attempt to find other people who have developed skills in one area and want to see what they can learn by smashing them up against another’s. It’s a way to remind ourselves that there’s always more to learn, always new directions in which to grow.

• A bit of everything else

1)   Pick three adjectives that describe the stuff you make:  Scientific, Muscular, Surprising

2)   Work samples:

Share a bit about your work. This can links to audio recordings, video clips, a digital portfolio or website, press coverage and/or writing samples – basically, whatever you think best represents what you make. Feel free to also include information on any upcoming show/reading/performance!

Last fall I created a piece at Eastern State Penitentiary for the FringeArts festival called The Ballad of Joe Hill. I love working in spaces that aren’t theaters. Something about discovering the story of the place and how it’s architecture helps convey the emotion we’re after is really exciting to me. Below are a couple of my favorite photos from the show (all credited to the amazing Kyle Cassidy):

brad trial

hilda suitcase

reporters

hilda hall

For the NPR nerds out there, WHYY also had us on RadioTimes with Marty Moss-Coane to talk about the piece and its historical context.

Here’s a photo for another play I created in 2010 called SURVIVE!

box survive

In this one I really wanted to create a theater experience that communicated the massive, incomprehensible size and complexity of the universe. So we had audience and performers moving through 20,000 sq ft of space in a “choose your own adventure” format. A person saw one of 128 different possible unique viewings of the show’s material, and any one person only able to see about a quarter of the play’s content in a single viewing.

Here’s a video trailer for that. And you can check out more pictures here.

And last I’ll share a little bit of my most recent play Welcome To Campus. I created this show in residence at Drexel University (where I teach) and the piece was a traveling “tour” of the campus performed by student actors. The students brought the audience across 2 miles of the campus giving tours of their own lives in the places these events actually occurred – classrooms, dorms, the gym, etc. We also had a second set of performers out in the landscape that magically manifested whatever the person was talking about. In one scene an actor talks about having to cut a friend out of her life who started drinking and spiraling into a negative lifestyle she was comfortable with and as the tour walks by you see a series of students all having the same phone conversation based on the event the guide is talking about. You can catch another profile on NPR, this time on Newsworks, here.

One of the things I really liked about this piece was a collaboration we had with a photographer and graphic artist for objects used in the piece. We weren’t allowed to use official Drexel schwag (our “fake” tour was NOT administration approved) so we created our own folders, maps, tour guide bios, gave audiences a “voucher” for the dining hall (continent on their submission of an application for admission). Kate Raines, a photographer friend, did a brochure style photo shoot of these kids that we used in a power point that started off the show. You can see some of the photos of the students doing their best to look happy and productive.

campus 1

campus 2

campus 3

campus 4

And at the very end of the show the audience is surprised to walk out onto the main stage of the theater building as they hear “pomp and circumstance.” Their names are called as they received “diplomas” (actually the show’s programs) as they “graduated” our play. Crowning achievement of this show was when an actual Drexel applicant and his parents came to the show and said that this was exactly what they wanted to have in a tour when trying to look at colleges.

Thanks for reading. Looking forward to meeting you!

– Adrienne

What exactly is “devising” anyway?

Hey folks, something a little different for today.

This past Sunday I gave a presentation on “devised” theater for Directors Gathering. As I sat down to prep for the evening, I realized that for so much of my career I’ve defined my work (or had it defined for me) as a series of oppositions. My work tends not to exist in a traditional space. It tends not to take a linear form. It tends not to let the audience sit back and passively observe.

As I started trying to describe this “style” of work I kept asking myself, rather than thinking about what it isn’t can I articulate was it is?

The short answer is yes, I can.

And because I was so pleased with the reply that I found in answer to that question, I thought it would be worth sharing with you.

So here it is…

A

 

This is why, this is why, this is why…

I had promised myself that this time I wouldn’t.

But I did it anyway.

Afterwards, I always feel dirty. I always feel awful. I always feel sad and conflicted and implicated when I partake in the coverage that flares up in the wake of a tragedy like the one at UCSB.

And I certainly wouldn’t be writing about it here on the blog if my rabbit hole of darkness and anger and violence and misogyny hadn’t lead me to a spinoff rabbit warren of articles by and about film critic Ann Hornaday’s recent response to the tragedy.

Ok look. I’m not going to spend much time here rehashing exactly what went down in this exchange. If you haven’t seen it online and formed an opinion, here’s the original essay (with a follow up video in which Hornaday contextualizes some of her initial statements).  And here are two other thoughtful articles, one by a woman and one by a man, that follow the original one’s social media aftermath and point out some very salient and relevant points about said online responses to it.

And here’s the thing that’s messy and hard for me to explain.

In my view, as a women who shares stories with audiences for a living, Hornaday raises interesting and worthy points of discussion. I don’t know much about the recent work of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan because my first experiences with both these artists fell very much in line with Ms Hornaday’s assessments of their collaborations as “outsized frat-boy fantasies.” But given the little I have seen, I see validity in her central argument: that casual misogyny present in works like these (and much of our mainstream media) can and probably do play a role in the way young men (including the one from the UCSB shooting) adjust their expectations of how the world (and in particular the women in it) should behave in relation to them.

Any honest and intelligent reader of her article should not claim that she makes a causal link between the movie type she mentions and the UCSB killing spree. She does not. But this does not stop lots of people from saying she did.

In a way, she actually implies a much deeper, and possibly scarier thing: that this one act of aggression by a single deranged individual might reflects strains of deep seated misogyny in our larger cultural consciousness. She implies that these movies could be affecting us all and not simply those that seem obviously ill. That in some small measure they are training every one of us to buy into values and desires that are hurtful to women and that it is not unreasonable to expect them to be manifested, to some degree, in reality.

Artists know this. They know that the stories we tell our audiences, the art and culture we offer them to consume, these are a kind of mirror of the sensibilities. Our works are the ideas and values that exist within all of us made visible and tangible to the viewer. To those that rant about simply understanding the difference between fantasy and reality I say this: just because I know that they are different, doesn’t mean one does not affect the other. Just because I know it’s probably not realistic when I see a pudgy character with few resources or skills in life able to “bag” an intelligent and successful and beautiful Katherine Heigl in a movie doesn’t mean it isn’t conditioning me to normalize it once I have seen it.

This is the stuff that dreams are made of…

In some measure art is indicative of the collective needs and desires of that culture we as a people are connecting to. But art is a feedback loop that flows in both directions. These stories come from us but they also reinforce our current mores within their narrative structures. They are a way in which the creators that produce them are able to mold and shape the creative landscape of influence in the future. Simply by watching a story we must take it into ourselves. Consciously or not we reflect on ourselves in relation to it. And the more something appears to us in narrative form, the more we feel its weight in our collective cultural consciousness. The more it seems like what’s normal and around us all the time.

If a prevalent type of story irritates us what are we to do? We might disengage with this aspect of our dominant culture (an act that is sometimes only possible with great effort and little external reward) or perhaps we might find ourselves slowly grinding down our rough edged opinions until they can coexist within the dominant ones.

Perhaps this how casually racist, sexist, genderist, classist, all the ist-ists out there are able to continue so much longer than they ought. Because the ordinariness, the omnipresent banality of such isms, wears down our outrage. Until such things become repeated to the point of cliche. Until they seem like the stories we’ve always been telling. Until it doesn’t occur to us that another story could even exist. Until they are as common and invisible as the air all around us.

And I imagine it’s tough if you fashion yourself a kind and funny and sensitive human, tougher still if you really ARE a kind and funny and sensitive human, to find that without intending to you’ve been standing in such air. That you didn’t want to breathe it in but you were without knowing it. That you just were going along about your business not trying to hurt anyone and now you feel trapped and can’t breathe and you’re labeled bad for just being yourself. And that this labeling someone is maybe not just indicting you with a single and simple solvable accusation, but something much bigger, something that you are deeply entangled with, something that would take a lot of life changing to really get into conversation real with.

To engage with that question is the hard hard hard thing. To dismiss a small aspect of it… To pick apart the argument and allay one’s unease with a sense that the accuser is the problem… To name call and take the fight to a simpler, lower level… much easier.

Much easier than admitting you are NOT a bad person but that sometimes we all do things that have many valences of impact on the world and about which all kinds of judgements can be made.

So I think it’s understandable that someone would react on the defensive, with anger and with outrage. Because for that person it is much more complicated that simply regretting one thing they said or did. It’s reckoning with all of it. No one wants to be called an “ist.” I think maybe no one is just an “ist.” Or that we’re all “ists” to some degree. But that label, that over-simplification of one’s identity, is what I think they fear. So they fight (Oh how they fight!!) not to end up in this box or stuck with that label or categorized in ways they didn’t agree to.

A little bit ironic, no?

This is why, this is why, this is why… it hits me so hard. Why some days the allies feel like the furthest ones away.

It is so hard to read that article and think that anyone imagines that it is anything but a woman who wanted to create a seasoned and reasoned and thoughtful raising of the question that perhaps, perhaps, perhaps there might be a way in which the stories we are currently telling have an effect on us, and perhaps especially on our weakest members.

It is so hard when at every turn in the article she raises questions rather than declaring angry blanket statements.

It is so hard when she reminds the reader that this influence is by no means the sole or even dominant force underpinning the choices that this sad and ill child made.

It is so hard to imagine that someone in that field in a position of power could completely and totally write off a statement like, “it’s worth examining who gets to be represented on screen, and how.”

When this article is perceived as a vicious, angry and male-hating attack. When an intellectual and well articulated argument on a huge number of societal and cultural forces is reduced to “How dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage.”

And it is the hardest, the kind of hard that almost makes me weep, when that kind and funny and sensitive person, one clearly inspired by hurt feelings and a desire not to be labeled as part of the problem, responds in a way that incites a devolution into the EXACT kind of casual misogyny the article intended to address in the first place:

reaction seth 1

reaction seth 2

If how Ms Hornaday brought up the subject is the (WRONG! HORRIBLE! INSENSITIVE TO THIS ENTERTAINER’S FEELINGS YOU HORRIBLE BITCH SLUT WHORE!!!!!!) incorrect way to address this…

How on earth are we supposed to talk about it?

<sigh>

This is why, this is why, this is why we need to start telling better, fuller, more complete versions of our society’s stories.

This is why, this is why, this is why as female creators we must not be satisfied with our currently limited and problematic options.

This is why, this is why, this is why as Ms. Hornaday says we must realize:

“As Rodger himself made so grievously clear, we’re only as strong as the stories we tell ourselves.”

– A

 

An interview with Adrienne

Hey all,

FringeArts did a nice little interview with me a while back about my current thoughts on art, projects in the Swim Pony mix and my hopes for sustainability over the long term of a long term career.

If you’re interested in reading (and seeing me sitting backwards in that omnipresent chair) check it out by clicking this picture:

Print

Enjoy,

– A

Dispatches from the Awesome Lady Squad

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Hey Awesome Ladies!

Spring has technically sprung, despite the nastiness of the current weather, and with it comes new blooms of Awesome-ness. LADYFESTO! now created we march ahead onto bigger and even better projects.

What’s next, you ask?

Let me share with you three upcoming opportunities to take part in the Squad:

1) A Frank Convo About the Classical Canon:

I’ll admit it. I’ve been having some tough conversations inside my own head and with others about how to deal with being a contemporary female artist in relation to “great” works from the past. And so, to help sort through some of these, I’ve invited a bunch of smart and thoughtful ladies who spend a lot of their time in these works to chat with me (and maybe you) about how they navigate these waters. My goal is talk openly about how and when to keep aspects of these plays from the past while still holding true to our Awesome Lady principles of the present.

Want to join? Then come to Headlong Studios (1170 S Broad St) on May 12th from 3 – 5pm to be a part of the conversation.

2) An Awesome Lady Talking Toolkit:

Back in the early months of this year we identified a series of problems the Squad wanted to solve and some things we’d like to have to help to do. One of the most frequently mentioned “wish list” items were these:

  • Skills to handle tough conversations about gender parity.
  • A way to talk about this that doesn’t become apologetic or defensive.
  • Something to say when I sense people starting to roll their eyes.
  • The ability to talk and explain the “no” to a project that doesn’t conform to my moral code.

This meeting will be the first of several to tackle this solution.

Maybe we’ll make a workbook, a writing exercise, a checklist, a document with a series of go to argument points, something even more Awesome we can’t even yet conceive!!! If you want define what form it will take, strategize a plan and timeline for its creation, and figure out how to roll it out for the Squad at large, this meeting is for you.

Headlong Studios (1170 S Broad St) on May 19th from 7 – 9 pm to join in.

And finally!

3) Awesome Lady Observerships (ongoing):

Being a director can be a lonely business. Whether you’re a season pro or a newbie to the game, rarely get to watch each other in action.  Chatting with Allison Heishman the other day we talked about much we both wanted the chance to just sit back and observe other ladies do their Awesome directing thing. In our artistic landscape – one filled with abundance and support – we figured getting to pick up tools, see problems solved in new ways or even just admire someone else in action is just the thing to help solve this.

So! If you’re intrigued, send an email to swimponypa@gmail.com and the following info:

  1. Your name

  2. If you’re interested in letting people observe you and any upcoming work they might be able to see

  3. If you’re interest in seeing someone else’s work

I’ll put some kind of list together and follow up soon.

Whew! That was an awful lot of Awesome-ness.

And I think that’s all for now, Ladies.

– Adrienne